After consulting extensively with numerous colleagues from all political parties, looking into the experiences of other Parliaments, and after much reflection on the matter of Parliamentary Associations, the effort to improve this Parliamentary function can be reduced to a few fundamental elements. The Joint Interparliamentary Council
(JIC) must give consideration to four points that will enable it to make progress and achieve a successful outcome.
The first point of debate, to which a clear unambiguous answer is required, is whether we, as Canadian parliamentarians, really believe that interparliamentary relations and Associations are useful and worthwhile. Since these activities demand a considerable investment of time and resources, and since they are frequently the target of stinging criticism in the media and from the public, parliamentarians must first be convinced amongst themselves as to the usefulness of Associations before proceeding any further.
Additionally, we must not lose sight of the fact that Associations are not an end in themselves but rather a means to reach specific objectives. All Association members claim there is value in establishing dialogue and providing networking opportunities with other parliamentarians. While this is undoubtedly true there must be specific emphasis on creating identifiable and measurable strategic objectives.
This then is the second point for consideration and debate. It is necessary to clearly identify what it is we want to accomplish through our interparliamentary relations and Associations. This involves careful review of the aims and motivations underlying our international activities to define the goals and objectives we want to achieve. At present very little effort is made to ensure that the purpose and goals of each Association are being advanced or for that matter if such things as goals even exist.1
An overall strategic vision would also enable us to coordinate our activities more effectively and would be of enormous assistance to the JIC in making decisions about allocating resources and setting priorities. Adding additional Associations, Friendship and/or
Interparliamentary groups could then be made as part of this greater strategic plan, and not allowed to merely evolve on an ad hoc basis.2 The JIC is also in a good position to act as a catalyst in ensuring Associations formulate their own clear goals and objectives.
Once objective goals have been determined we will have to decide on the best way of organizing the operations and the administration of the Associations and
Exchanges. This is the third point.
There is little doubt that in order to derive the maximum benefit from the resources we invest we must establish a coordination structure to ensure that we are all working toward common goals and that adequate progress is being made toward the priorities we set. Directed by a single person (a Secretary General, for instance) who is accountable equally to both Houses, all activities
could be grouped under and coordinated by a single secretariat. In addition to providing more effective coordination, this structure would have the advantage of simplifying communications and joint action with all the other partners working at the international level.3
Another potentially useful role for this Secretary General is to coordinate Parliamentary Association initiatives with the two Speakers. This could eliminate some unnecessary duplication and would ensure that Parliament covers all the necessary and worthwhile international initiatives. Currently the Speakers have almost no consultation with the JIC or the work of its member Associations and Friendship Groups, and initiate this travel almost exclusively. While the Speakers and government no doubt need some leeway in determining the Speakers’ international agenda, such initiatives should be dovetailed into the work of Associations and coordinated through a single secretariat.
The fourth and final point is that if we deem parliamentary relations and Associations to be useful and beneficial in reaching international strategic objectives, we have to be willing to ensure that they have adequate means and resources. If we believe these activities are worthwhile, we have to be prepared to allocate the required funds. If, however, the current level of funding is in fact a reflection of the importance both Houses place on these international activities, then we must seriously consider our level of involvement in terms of where best to place our limited resources.
Following is a much more detailed description and appraisal of the current situation facing the JIC and its family of Parliamentary Associations. The report also contains a number of specific recommendations, which must be considered on the basis of the above discussion points.
1 A few years ago efforts to enshrine a mission statement/goal concept within one Parliamentary Association resulted in one MP being forced off the Executive and asked not to return.
2 During 1998 Canada-China was added as an official Parliamentary Association after a Minister of the Crown exceeded his authority (see Speaker’s ruling April 23, 1998) by announcing in China the formation of this new Association. Canada-UK also received official status during 1998 for no other reason than to make it equal to Canada-France. Meanwhile the Americas and the Middle East continue to have little emphasis at JIC.
3 We were fortunate that the Canada-China and Canada-Japan Associations happened to coordinate a joint trip to Australia this year. If they didn’t just happen to be talking to one another, this wouldn’t have occurred.